As the Chris Marker exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery enters its final days, we take a look inside
He was a French visionary whose work crossed the boundaries of art, film, photography, politics and science fiction; Chris Marker, who died in 2012, left behind an archive of almost unparalleled genius. Comprising some 60 films, photographs, workbooks, travel books and collages, it is an intelligent and imaginative body of work, made possible by Marker’s enquiring and brilliant mind.
Born in 1921, Marker is perhaps best known for his political and science fiction-inspired film essays, which include La Jetée (The Pier), made in 1962, and 1983’s Sans Soleil (Sunless). The former, created almost entirely through a combination of black-and-white stills photographs with a voiceover, and the latter, a meditative travelogue, were pioneering at the time they were created and still resonate strongly today. But there is far more to Marker than these films alone, as an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery shows.
Select video and filmworks, collages, photographs and multimedia installations are currently on display at the London Gallery in what is the first UK retrospective of Marker’s work. The exhibition extends over two floors and brings together the filmmaker’s most important work with that which is lesser known.
Upon entering the main gallery space, visitors are immersed in Marker’s eerie and strange but beautiful world. The space is divided into separate areas that explore different aspects of Marker’s work. Marker was fascinated by emerging technologies, from cinema to the internet and multimedia, so in Immemory (1990–97), for example, visitors are invited to experience an encyclopaedic CD-ROM of images and texts running on computers. In another work, Marker uses the website Second Life to create an avatar, the cat Guillaume-en-Egypte. There is a playfulness to all of this, but also a more profound questioning about the nature of human experience and progress.
Travel was one of Marker’s lifelong passions, and elsewhere in the main space we are confronted with a large-screen projection of a sequence from the film Sans Soleil, where a woman reads letters sent to her by a “globetrotting cameraman” who travels between Japan and Guinea-Bissau in Africa. There is also a display of travel books, designed and edited by Marker in the 1950s and ’60s, and in a separate side room multiple television screens (Zapping Zone, 1990-94) flicker from image to image, across locations, touching on the idea of time-travel as well as travelling across geographical distances. The result, in this room especially, is brilliantly confrontational, thought-provoking and hypnotic.
Themes including time, history and memory – of particular interest to Marker – resonate throughout the exhibition, and upstairs Marker’s science fiction short, La Jetée, is projected alongside his workbooks for the film, which give an insight into his working processes. The 28-minute film was constructed almost entirely from still photos and tells the story of a post-nuclear, war-time travel experiment. It was the basis of Terry Gilliam’s 1995 feature film, Twelve Monkeys, and remains an important film in its own right.
A final room considers Marker’s political involvement through a series of images, films and multimedia pieces. Marker was politically active during his life, joining the Resistance in World War II and engaging in leftist and collectivist politics throughout his life. Two multimedia works centred around images of World War I and its aftermath, made in 1978 and 2005, are particularly relevant given this year is the war’s 100-year anniversary.
Each section in the exhibition flows seamlessly into the next and in doing so creates an engaging, interactive experience. You could spend hours poring over each installation (and visitors should take their time) but, ultimately, Marker remains as elusive and unknowable as ever – and that is the beauty of the exhibition.
Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat is on show at Whitechapel Gallery in London until 22 June. Admission is free.
Stay up to date with stories such as this, delivered to your inbox every Friday.